HELENA — The Montana Learning Center (MLC) at Canyon Ferry Lake was awarded more than $67,000 from the Montana Department of Commerce’s Tourism Grant program. In a press release, the center says the funds will be used to upgrade telescopes in the existing observatories, enhance public outreach, and promote awareness of the facility.
The funding will help Montana Learning Center expand its programs and observatories, which consist of the largest public-access telescope in Montana, and a robotic telescope equipped with a camera specifically designed to capture stellar objects.
The camera system will be upgraded to a wide-field astrograph to capture larger swaths of deep sky. At 24 megapixels and suited for both color and narrowband photography, the astrograph system produces detailed images.
The Learning Center will also add two additional telescopes in addition to the astrograph, one for solar viewing, and the other for lunar and planetary observation. These additions will ensure that visitors have access to a broad range of astronomical observations, including solar, lunar, planetary, and deep space.
“We are in an ideal location for visitors seeking a dark-sky experience,” said Ryan Hannahoe, Executive Director of the Montana Learning Center. “Our state-of-the-art observatory, coupled with our wonderfully dark skies, offers guests a truly unique experience. This grant will enable us to expand our astronomy program, while also providing a marketing budget to let people, particularly from outside of Montana, know how much we have to offer here in Big Sky Country.”
Astro-tourism is an emerging, but quickly growing, industry in Montana, as communities across the Treasure State are working to attain certification by the International Dark-Sky Association. Hannahoe said that he and his team are partnering with local restaurants, hotels, and other area attractions to promote package deals.
“We are looking forward to offering a comprehensive astro-tourism program to make trip planning that much easier,” Hannahoe said.
In previous years, the Learning Center has hosted a number of public viewing events at the observatory. While those are on hold for 2021, Hannahoe looks forward to bringing such events back when COVID-19 is no longer a concern. The Learning Center will continue its guest observation program this summer, which enables small groups or individuals to rent the telescopes for an evening with an astronomer. This offers an opportunity for observers to request to view or photograph particular objects in the night sky.
“We are grateful that the Montana Department of Commerce has recognized our efforts to provide outstanding educational opportunities for our student campers and the general public, and thank the State for supporting our continued expansion through this Tourism Grant,” Hannahoe said. “With the incredible support of our donors, we have made tremendous strides. We look forward to making our facility a destination for tourists from around the world who want to observe Montana’s night skies.”